*Captain America voice* So you’ve watched Squid Game. You checked out Hellbound and All of Us Are Dead. Maybe you even ventured into Japanese dramas with Alice in Borderland, and you’re now waiting for season 2 for all of these shows. Netflix does have a ton of Asian simulcasts that they keep adding, but perhaps now you feel compelled to seek out other/older Korean horror shows.
Well, look no further! In a list that I refuse to rank in case it provokes debate but presented in a somewhat-order-of-preference anyway [ascending], here are my personal picks for top five horror kdramas:
Stars: Song Kang, Lee Jin Wook, Lee Si Young, Go Min Si, Lee Do Hyun, Park Gyu Young
Set in a run-down apartment block, Sweet Home follows a mismatched collection of residents who come together to battle a variety of utterly grotesque, bloodthirsty monsters. Boasting creative creature design, a stacked cast and an assortment of compelling characters with by turns interesting, funny, and sad backstories, it’s no surprise that this is getting not only a second but also a third season.
Stars: Kim Dong Wook, Jung Eun Chae, Kim Jae Wook
If you’re after spiritual horror, The Guest gives you two religious-based terror for the price of one show. A Buddhist shaman, a Catholic priest and a police officer must overcome their differences and work together to unravel the mystery behind a series of gruesome deaths driven by a powerful, vengeful spirit. The beginning of that sentence might sound like the set-up for a joke but this is anything but - think graphic, bloody violence, brutal possession and exorcism scenes, and truly heartbreaking moments for our characters. It’s a show steeped in generational trauma, abuse and personal salvation, but never in a way that feels sensationalist or hopeless. Heavy subject matter for sure, and it doesn’t skimp on the scares or the relentless, otherworldly dread.
Stars: Han Hyo Joo, Park Hyung Sik, Jo Woo Jin
We know from the likes of Train to Busan that Korea does zombies exceptionally well, but Happiness is yet another twist on the subgenre. Set in new-build, exclusive apartment block, two young cops pretend to be a couple (a famous kdrama trope) to qualify for residency. All seems idyllic until the onset of a rabies-like virus, but it’s how this familiar ground is trodden in this show that makes the case for its recommendation. The zombies are still mostly human, but with moments of lucidity (so killing them isn’t the snap decision you usually see with the genre), and framing the outbreak within the covid pandemic (directly mentioning it) makes for some cracking commentary on how individuals, communities and government bodies can act and have acted - for better or worse - during a time of crisis and uncertainty. Think High-Rise meets Dawn of the Dead.
Strangers From Hell
Stars: Im Siwan, Lee Dong Wook, Lee Jung Eun
Also titled Hell is Other People (as a direct reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit), Strangers From Hell follows a young would-be crime writer fresh out of the army (2-year conscription is mandatory for men in Korea), moving from his mother’s house to the capital city of Seoul. After a laptop repair breaks into his living funds, he’s forced to stay at a rooming house whose collection of weirdo residents are at best perverts and at worst… cannibals. While indeed a set-up for some very grisly goings-on, this show has some wryly, darkly funny things to say about the stresses of city living (the grimy, oppressive, suffocating gosiwon is a far cry from the plush apartments usually seen in kdramas), social anxiety, toxic masculinity, workplace stress and just the general way we treat people. Though you’ll probably never look at rice cakes the same way again.
Stars: Ju Ji Hoon, Bae Doona, Ryu Seung Ryong
Arguably the most esteemed of horror kdramas (wait - I said I wasn’t ranking this), Kingdom is set in a fictionalised Joseon (mediaeval) era during a nascent zombie outbreak. Its gorgeous cinematography and truly epic surroundings - palaces, gardens, ship voyages, even a damn waterfall - is juxtaposed strikingly against the tense, inventive set-pieces and heavy doses of gore. But the proceedings are also grounded by measured performances and intricate storytelling, a trademark of the show’s writer, Kim Eun Hee (who also wrote the excellent, gritty, bleak and brutal sci-fi-esque drama Signal). With two seasons under its belt plus a spin-off film and an upcoming third season, Kingdom will definitely sate your horror kdrama hunger.
Honourable mention: Zombie Detective
Stars: Choi Jin Hyuk, Park Ju Hyun
While not really a horror but more of a comedy, I couldn’t let this list slide without mentioning Zombie Detective. It’s exactly what it sounds like: An amnesiac wakes up in the woods as a zombie and spends the rest of the show as a private detective trying to figure out who he is and what happened to him. But, in doing so, he’s pestered by actual clients, neighbours and complete strangers who draw him into a net of smaller cases that may link to his hunt for the truth. It’s a silly but fun show with some great humour and a good soundtrack, so a perfect drama to chuck on in a party setting.
So that’s my list! Commence fighting over it now but, even if you do, at least we can agree that, if you’re reading this, you love or have a burgeoning adoration for kdramas. And the world definitely needs more of that.
Typically, Korean shows tend to only go for one season - usually 16 episodes. But, owing to wider international success (and possibly international audiences expecting and being used to multi-season shows) networks have been playing with formats - such as 12 episodes or less, and multiple seasons, with Squid Game being the best-known example. So if all of these shows end up getting future multiple seasons, you’d better start your viewing homework now. 가자!